Is it time to ban after hours work?

by Tammy Buckley15 Apr 2014
Rising concerns over work stress and productivity has seen a number of laws and policies implemented in Europe to combat the problem. France is the most recent to make headlines with a new labour law for staff working in the digital and consultancy sectors to “disconnect” from work calls and emails outside of working hours.

Under the law companies must ensure that their employees come under no pressure to look at work-related material on their computers or smartphones to ensure they are receiving the full minimum rest periods they are afforded under the law.

Meanwhile, Germany’s employment ministry has banned its managers from calling or emailing staff out of hours except in emergencies under new guidelines.

The guidelines, aimed at preventing burn-out, state that staff should not be penalised for switching off their mobiles or failing to pick up messages out or hours. The exception is when a task cannot be postponed until the next day. Similar restrictions have already been imposed at German firms such as Volkswagen and BMW.

The Daily Telegraph reported that Ursula von der Leyen, the labour minister, had told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung the rules had been drawn up to protect workers' mental health.
"It's in the interests of employers that workers can reliably switch off from their jobs, otherwise, in the long run, they burn out," she said.

Additionally, a Swedish city council has announced that its trialling six-hour workdays with full pay for its staff in Gothenburg. It is hoped that the experiment will ultimately save money by making employees more productive in their working hours.

Mats Pilhem, the city’s Left-wing deputy mayor, told The Local Sweden that he hoped “staff members would take fewer sick days and feel better mentally and physically after working shorter days".

So should Australia be following suit?
Special counsel Michael Byrnes from Clayton Utz says employers could force people to stop working out of hours by cutting off access to email and work systems at a certain time of day, but it would cause problems for workers.

“It would be, in some respects, a bit simple-minded to simply cut off access at an arbitrary point in the day because whilst technology can imprison and can mean that people are, at least theoretically, on call 24 hours a day, it can also liberate. It means that if an employer has the right flexibility practices in place, employees with, for example, carer responsibilities or employees who, for a number of reasons, have to take time off during what would be considered normal work hours, are able to perform their work at a time that suits them.

“It’s a case of harnessing the technology in a way that allows employers and employees to be flexible, particularly in regard to carer responsibilities or other accommodations that employers either need to make under the law, or should make as a matter of good practice. An arbitrary rule sounds good in theory but actually could be counter-productive.”

He says another issue that arises from the increased use of technology is that if an employee is given access to emails out of hours, can an employer reasonably expect an employee to be checking that out of hours?

“There’s a question as to whether an employer can offer a reasonable lawful direction that employees check emails at all hours of the day and night, simply because there is the technological capacity to do so. The technology does liberate, but it can also imprison in that way. It’s about using these things in a way that is sensible and balanced so they facilitate employers being able to extend to employees, flexibility.”

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